Imagining ‘America’: My Mother’s Refugee Journey to America

 

My family in the relocation camp in the Philippines. My mother is carrying me, her youngest child Kim Anh.

 

For much of my life I had dreamt of one day writing down my family’s refugee narrative. I had envisioned a beautiful photo, audio, and essay project that would do justice to their story. But I never quite got there.

I would begin to write, transcribe her words, and then weep. Putting into words her refugee story somehow made it real. It was not just a distant tale of heroism, escape, and hope. It was my mother, my family, me, who lived this reality. I felt my grandparents being tortured after their attempts to escape Vietnam. I clutched my siblings hands as they fled into the night and were herded like cattle into a dilapidated boat. I heard my mother screaming across the crashing waves that land was in sight. I sensed my mother’s restrained breath and taut shoulders as she walked through the gates of Los Angeles International Airport into this strange place called America.

I have not been able to find the words, the time, and the emotional resiliency to truly express and honor my mother’s story. I felt that everything I wrote either oversimplified the complexity of her struggle or cast her into a net of anonymous victims of war, starvation, and broken promises.

I will continue to record, rewrite, and imbue with love and compassion my family’s story.

Until then, given the current state of the world I wanted to share this ‘in progress’ attempt to record my mother’s refugee journey.

Over 8 years ago, I conducted on oral history of my mother for my Asian American class at UCLA. At the time, it was the only way that I could write my mother’s story — from an emotional distance. This essay lays the framework of my family’s refugee narrative and the meaning of ‘America’ throughout this journey.


It began with a password. In the middle of a desolate intersection in Phan Thiết province Vietnam, a stranger whom we prayed held the passage to our freedom, approached my family of four and asked us why we were there. My mother uttered the password phrase that cost numerous years of planning and failed attempts, a lifetime of savings in gold, and our family’s hopes and dreams for escape from a crumbling world of death and warfare. She replied carefully and clearly to the stranger, “I am looking for a school for my children to study.” With a mechanical nod, he motioned silently to my family to follow him down the dark and deserted road. That was the beginning of my mother’s journey to America.


Family, War, and Escape

The Fall of Saigon on April 30,1975 has been remembered as a day of drastic changes for many — the world watched in mixed emotions of fear, regret, and anxiety, as South Vietnam fell to Communism. My mother remembered the streets most clearly that day: abandoned luggage, furniture, and motorbikes strewn alongside dead bodies; lost children wailing; the sounds of distant gunfire. For my mother, the “Fall of Saigon” was the loss of their country, their home, and the loss of any hope for a future. Between 1975 and 1987, my mother and her parents tried to escape four times through various means. However, each time failed and cost our family a lifetime of savings and even the imprisonment and torture of my grandparents.

At that point, her impression of “America” encompassed both the resentment of America’s withdrawal from South Vietnam and also the desire for escape and safety in America. My mother recalled, “It was a hope and a dream to gain passage upon a boat, and through finding a boat we would be on our way to America. It was everyone’s desire.” My mother’s family left in different stages based on underground/illegal networks to purchase routes of escape: my two uncles Lâm and Thanh were the first to leave in the beginning of the year 1978, followed by my two younger uncles Sỹ and Hùng in 1987. We heard no news from Sỹ and Hùng — if they were safe or if they had made it out of Vietnam. However, towards the end of 1987, my mother Thuỷ Phạm (27), my father Trung Nguyễn (26), and their two young children Kim Ngân Nguyễn (4), and Khanh Nguyễn (3), found a small chance to escape and decided to take it. My parents did not tell my siblings where we were going and why. My mother recalled, “But your sister somehow knew. That day your older sister Kim clutched onto the door of our home, screaming.” They brought nothing except for a few ounces of gold sewn into their clothing and a few pieces of ginseng. At the time of her departure, my mother was unaware that she was a couple months pregnant with me, her third daughter Kim Anh Nguyễn.

When my family and I fled our homeland we assumed the title of “refugee.” The United Nations Human Rights Agency defines a refugee as an individual who has “…a well‐founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

Our family became another statistic among the sea of hundreds of thousands seeking survival. The Vietnam War left an estimated 2‐3 million Vietnamese and over 50,000 Americans dead, which is a low estimate. However, the devastation and repercussions of war did not end with the unification of the two Vietnams under the Paris Peace Accords. With the fall of Saigon and exit of American troops in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled the country. Even before that period, thousands of Vietnamese and also those in the neighboring countries Laos and Cambodia had flooded into neighboring countries. By May 1975, 131,000 Vietnamese had entered the United States. This “First Wave” of refugees from the war were mainly families from backgrounds of the upper class, military and political personnel, teachers, and Chinese-Vietnamese. However, later waves of refugees generally consisted of individuals from poorer backgrounds and those who were forced to rely upon much more desperate and dangerous strategies of escape. Many of these people would later come to be known as “boat people,” who escaped Vietnam and the communist regime through perilous boat journeys with only the clothes on their back. My family was amongst the thousands who were forced to abandon their homes, flee into the night, and clutch onto the hope of survival and a better life.


The Boat Journey

My family was told to meet someone at the bus station and tell them “I am looking for a school for my children to study. Please show me where it is.” They followed the stranger into the night, hid in another building, and had to wait until next night fall to move. The next night they followed another stranger who took them to a raft. The raft transported them to a small boat, already crowded full of hundreds of people.

My mom described the harrowing journey: “There was no room to sit, we had to stand quietly under the deck and they pulled a plastic cover over us. The fishermen on the deck of the boat told us to be silent, cover tightly the mouths of our crying children, and wait until they bribe border control and pass Vietnamese borders. I don’t know how long we had to stand. But we all thought that we were getting transported to a larger boat that would take us to safety.” The fishermen announced that the boat had passed through to international waters, and everyone could finally breath a sigh of relief. They removed the plastic cover, and blinking confusedly in the daylight everyone realized where they were.

“My god, the boat was tiny. Over 200 people were crammed onto this boat. We felt like a tiny leaf floating in an endless ocean.”

During the boat journey, each family was allotted a square meter to sit on top of the deck exposed to the elements. My family was lucky because my father was chosen to work in the engine room that was close to the dwindling water supply. “Every ration of water he received, he never swallowed. He kept it in his mouth and gave it to your brother and sister.” There was no food on the boat, but my family sucked onto the few pieces of ginseng for energy.

By the fifth day a huge boat of pirates found us. All the men had to run to the deck and hide sticks and daggers in their clothes while the women and children hid under the deck. Finding our boat full of men, the pirates backed down and asked, “What do you need help with? Give us gold and we’ll help you.” Everyone on deck gathered the few resources they had and bribed the pirates to lead them to the nearest land.


Camp Life and America as “Savior”

After around 6 to 7 days floating in the South China Sea and braving starvation, dehydration, and pirates, the captain of our boat sighted land. The boat exploded with screams of excitement and fear. My mother recalled that her yells encompassed an outpouring of her feelings of excitement and assurance mixed with emotions of worry and fear. Although she and our family had found sanctuary in a refugee camp, she did not know how long we would stay there or under what conditions she would have to raise her children. She soon found out that the land we had sighted was the tiny island Pulau Bidong of Malaysia.

“Immediately when we arrived on land, we had to send message to the rest of our family in Vietnam: Do not leave. It’s too dangerous, you will die.”

Malaysia was one of the neighboring countries that received Vietnamese refugees. The United Nations High Comissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) constructed a temporary refugee camp on the island of Pulau Bidong in 1975 that would hold up to a maximum of 12,000 people. However, by 1979 there were almost 50,000 refugees living on the island for an indeterminate amount of time. On average, a refugee spends around 12 months in a camp, but some stayed for years. Over time, these camps developed their own systems of community adaption such as cafes, churches, temples, and shops.

At the time of my family’s arrival in July of 1987, Pulau Bidong hosted far beyond its capacity of refugees. In my mother’s description of life on the island, she focused on food and shelter — the two most important necessities during camp life but were severely lacking. “Each week we were only rationed about an ounce of chicken, they would give us green beans and some packaged noodles. That was all. Some of the men would catch fish on the shores, but during some seasons it would be so sad. The fish we caught were infested with worms. When we cooked them the worms would crawl out, but we had to eat it because that was all we had.” She describes how her accommodations were menial, and she felt like she had become an animal. “I lived in a wooden pig pen. The roof was constructed by metal pieces and only a three feet tall piece of wood separated one family from the next.” Lastly, my mother spoke of the crowded conditions on the island, “In the daytime it was a world of humans, squeezed next to each other. In the nighttime it was a world of rats and bugs, feasting on the little food we had on the island and the people themselves.”

After around 8 months of camp life at Pulau Bidong, my mother gave birth to me. Approximately one to two months afterwards, our family was selected to be interviewed by the American delegation. After months of awaiting news of delegations from other countries who would sponsor Vietnamese refugees, our family’s prayers had been answered. Luckily, several of our uncles had already been sponsored to America, and the likelihood of our family becoming reunited in America was relatively high. For the interview, mother dressed in her best, stood alongside my father, her two children, and carried me her two month old infant. At the interview, my mother was asked a series of logistical questions including our health and well‐being, if we had relatives in other countries, and also why we fled Vietnam. When asked why we wanted to go to America, my mother answered her well‐rehearsed reply, “I couldn’t survive the violence of the Communists. I want to give my children a good and beautiful life.” She confided in me how nervous she was at the interview. She felt that all of her luck was gambled upon that one day, and if she stated something incorrectly, a journey to America would be replaced with an indefinite time in the camp, just like our neighbors. The moment we found out we were accepted to come to America, our entire refugee life changed. My mother described how the family and the neighbors joined in on days of celebration of our good news.

Our family and neighbors celebrate our departure from the Philippines relocation camp to America

Shortly afterward, our family was sent to a relocation camp in the Philippines as the final step before our move to America. There, my mother remarked that camp life provided better necessities such as housing, food, and contact with the outside world. It was at the Philippines relocation camp that my parents were both sent to a six‐month mandatory American culture and language class. These schools provided structured training on adaption to American lifestyle, from culture lessons, language classes, to lessons in maintaining an “American” family. It was here that my mother was taught the “American” lifestyle, cultural expectations, basic language and American social skills.

My mother and her Filipina American-language and culture instructor.

Recalling her first experiences with the culture lessons, she focused primarily on one lesson that bothered her both at the time and still today. She was taught that in America, parents were not allowed to “punish” their children. When I asked her what that meant, she replied, “Basically, they told me that I wasn’t allowed to be a “good” parent. If I were, I would get imprisoned.” When inquired for further details, my mother finally explained that the instructors taught her that corporal punishment, which in her eyes qualified a “good parent”, was illegal in America. Her teachers, who were native Filipinos and taught in English, introduced the “American life” to my parents such as simple customs as greetings and manners, to more personal expectations such as child rearing. Some examples of the customs taught at the schools: at the cinema, everyone must wait in line; littering was not allowed in America; no spitting or peeing on the sidewalk; women always enter a restaurant first; and dog owners are required to scoop up a dog’s poop.

Within my mother’s interview on this topic, she continued to revert back to the topic of child rearing. She would question out loud the irrationality of parents being punished for doing what was expected of a parent — discipline and guide their children. As I tried to ask more follow up questions on this subject and the details of the cultural schools, my mother responded abruptly, “Honestly, the education really didn’t matter. We just wanted to do whatever it was to leave and come to this strange land of America. America seemed like a strange place, but it was better than living in a camp.”


Departure/Arrival

Dressed in our best before our flight from the Philippiens to America

When my mother arrived in LAX airport in America in 1989, she thought of ‘America’ with mixed emotions — dreams of safety and anxious uncertainty surrounded her definition of “America”. Ever since her youth, my mother’s impression of America was shaped by American involvement in the war. American troops flooded her hometown Biên Hoà with their novel trinkets and curious appearances. During this time, America was a place of freedom and riches. With the departure of America from Saigon and the subsequent fall of the South to Communism, my mother witnessed her dream of safety and a future also disappear. As a refugee in Pulau Bidong, she dreamt of America as a sanctuary and new life for her young family. Throughout this time, much of her imagination of ‘America’ was constructed from distant stories of rescue, opportunity, and hope. Finally, at the relocation camps in the Philippines, my mother received structured lessons on “American” family values, manners, and laws to help ease her transition to the new lifestyle.

Throughout her entire life, she imagined “America” to be a place of hope, escape, and a new life. “America” was a place for her children to study, to thrive, and to finally have a future.


Based off oral interviews with my mother Thuy Pham, refugee and inhabitant of Pulau Bidong (~June 1987‐March 1988) in 2008 for my Asian American studies class and in 2015 for the “First Days in America” project.

My interview with Story Corps First Days in America Project: “Thank you mom, you are my role model.”

My essay on refugee memory: “I was raised on stories of a war-torn Vietnam.”